Rebel with a camera: Carlos Lechuga

Carlos Lechuga’s debut film Melaza portrays everyday life in Cuba with no trace of sentimentality, and a candour that contradicts both state propaganda and tourist fantasy. As Jonathan Ali explains, it’s also established the young filmmaker at the forefront of a new wave of Cuban cinema talent

Carlos Lechuga on set with Geraldine Léon, Melaza’s first assistant director, and Ernesto Calzado, director of photography. Photograph courtesy Trinidad+Tobago Film FestivalCarlos Lechuga. Photograph courtesy IFF PanamáCruz and Gómez play a young couple in a rural Cuban village, struggling to support their family. Courtesy Trinidad+Tobago Film FestivalLechuga at the 2013 Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival. Photograph courtesy Trinidad+Tobago Film FestivalYuliet Cruz and Armando Miguel Gómez, Melaza’s lead actors. Courtesy Trinidad+Tobago Film Festival

Melaza, the debut feature film from Cuban writer and director Carlos Lechuga, opens with a shot of a sun-drenched field of sugarcane, the bright green blades of the young plants rippling in the stiff breeze. It’s an innocuous-seeming, even pretty image. Yet to anyone acquainted with the history of the Caribbean, and sugar’s place in it, the image suggests something more, something darker.

Taking its title from the fictional rural town of its setting, Melaza — “Molasses” — tells the story of a young couple striving to make ends meet. Mónica (Yuliet Cruz) is the receptionist at the local sugar mill, the only employee left after the government shut it down. Her partner Aldo (Armando Miguel Gómez) is the teacher at the primary school. They struggle on their pitifully low salaries to support not only themselves, but also Mónica’s handicapped mother (Ana Gloria Buduén), and Marla (Carolina Márquez), Mónica’s daughter from a previous relationship.

One of the schemes the couple engages in to make money involves renting their house — a cramped, converted cargo container — to a friend of Mónica’s, a prostitute who uses it to entertain her clients. When the police discover the scheme, they slap the couple with a hefty fine. They have thirty days to pay; if they don’t, Aldo will go to prison. In the most ironic of twists, Mónica contemplates doing the unthinkable. The film ends on a bittersweet note: Aldo and Mónica are able to pay their debt, but at great personal cost.

Clocking in at a crisp eighty minutes, and almost completely devoid of sentimentality or melodrama, Melaza is a confident and engagingly intelligent film, shot through with a sardonic sense of humour. (It’s the best Cuban film I’ve seen in years.) It is also an unapologetic excoriation of Cuba’s communist system. Writing in Filmmaker magazine, the US critic Lauren Wissot called it “a cinematic indictment of the Castro regime,” and hailed Lechuga as a “visionary director to keep an eye on.”

Melaza’s success is no isolated achievement. Lechuga is one of a handful of young Cuban filmmakers who are working independently of the government and the state-run cinematic institute that has produced many celebrated films since the coming of the Revolution fifty years ago. Along with directors such as Alejandro Brugués, whose satirical zombie comedy Juan of the Dead was a global smash, and Carlos Quintela Machado, director of the critically lauded art-house drama The Swimming Pool, Lechuga is at the forefront of an exciting new wave of Cuban cinema, one that dares to directly criticise the system and its myriad shortcomings.

Lechuga, however, is more reticent about the intentions of his film. “I wanted to make a film about my environment,” he tells me via email from Havana, where he lives. “About my country, and the people I care about. I didn’t set out to criticise only the government. I wanted to make a mirror and say to the Cuban people, and to myself, ‘Look, this is you.’”

This candour is typical of Lechuga, whom I had the pleasure of meeting for the first time at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, where Melaza had its international premiere. He’s also refreshingly humble and generous, in an industry where undeniable talent, coupled with the first flush of success, can often go quickly to a young auteur’s head.

Born in Havana in 1983, Lechuga was raised by his mother and grandmother — “I grew up in a family of women, without a father,” he says. Like most Cubans, the family were severely affected by the “Special Period” of the early 1990s, the economic crisis brought on by the collapse of the Soviet Union, a time when even basic foodstuffs were in short supply. “I still don’t know how my family survived,” Lechuga says.

In 2005 he entered the International School of Cinema and Television (EICTV) to study filmmaking and screenwriting. EICTV is located in the countryside town of San Antonio de los Baños, about sixteen miles south-west of Havana, and Lechuga’s three years there opened his eyes to the stark contrast between life in rural Cuba and the capital. Havana has been the locus of Raúl Castro’s much-publicised free-market reforms, which, among other things, allow Cubans to operate private restaurants from their homes, as well as rent apartments, known as casas particular, to foreigners.

“Everybody’s talking about the economic reforms in Cuba,” says Lechuga. “The problem is that the people who are benefitting most from the reforms already have money, or families outside of Cuba who send them remittances. What about everyone else? People like Aldo and Mónica, with their meagre salaries, could never, for example, open a casa particular.”

Lechuga wrote the script of Melaza in 2007, as his EICTV thesis. Influenced by his years in the countryside, he set out to shine a light on a side of Cuba rarely seen, one that he calls “another world, one that has been left behind.” But there was also a straightforward aesthetic reason for giving Melaza its rural setting: “I wanted to show the beauty of the environment. The green of the sugarcane. The blue of the sky. The sun. The old machines. The architecture.”

Another striking aspect of the film is the contrast between people’s daily routines and the official, approved view of what life is like, which paints quite a different picture. This is illustrated by propaganda in the newspapers and on the radio, slogans seen on banners strung up on buildings (“Homeland is humanity”), messages coming from loudspeakers railing against “imperialismo yanqui,” patriotic songs, even school textbooks.

“For me, Cuban television and newspapers are like science fiction,” says Lechuga. “I never watch TV or read the papers, because they put me in a bad mood. They talk about Cuba like a paradise. They aren’t aware of what’s really happening. That’s why I make fun of them in the film, because they are far away from reality.”

Melaza also derives much of its power from its imagery, often both absurdly funny and desperately sad at once. There is a scene showing Mónica scrupulously clocking in at work, even though the mill is shuttered, and likely won’t open again. In another, Aldo teaches his students to swim in a run-down pool with no water.

“When I wrote the script, I had a major challenge,” says Lechuga about these scenes. “I had to provide information about Cuba for people who don’t know much about the country, but at the same time I didn’t want to bore people with didacticism.

“So I needed to find a way to quickly convey information about what life is like. And that’s how I did it, through these potent images. Cubans are very inventive people. We have learned to be inventive to survive. Sometimes you see something in the streets, something very surreal, and you think if you put that in a movie, nobody is going to believe you. But reality is much richer than fiction.”

Financing Melaza was another challenge. “The state production company was not interested,” he says. “So in 2008 I went to Claudia Calviño, and her company Producciones de la 5ta Avenida. They produced Juan of the Dead. They liked my script, so we started to apply to film funds in Latin America, and got some funding there. Then we got funds from a French producer, which led us to several other French companies. So little by little we raised the money, and started filming in 2011.”

Permission was still needed from the authorities, however, to begin the filming process. “One week before the shooting was set to begin, they read the script and gave us the approvals we needed. Then, when the movie was finished, they didn’t like what they saw. And they tried to distance themselves from the project, even asking us to remove them from the credits.”

Despite this, the film was able to have its premiere at the Havana Film Festival in December 2012. Lechuga’s hard work was vindicated. “People loved the film. This film was made for the Cuban people, and watching it with them was like being in heaven. We won that fight,” he says. Some Cuban fans even got hold of his phone number. “They call me, saying, ‘Thank you. You showed my life.’”

Since premiering in Havana, Melaza has gone on to tour the international film festival circuit to great acclaim, and continues to win prizes and plaudits around the world. But not everyone is impressed. “A lot of foreigners who have a picture of an idealised Cuba in their minds don’t like the film. And a lot of people who think that Cuba is the worst country in the world don’t like it either,” admits Lechuga. “I don’t think that the film is for someone with an extreme view of Cuba, either way.

“Sometimes people say to me they don’t think Melaza is representative of all of Cuba. And it’s true; not all of Cuba is like that. But it is the Cuba that the tourists who come for two weeks don’t see. It’s the Cuba we don’t see on television. It’s the Cuba of the people who believed in the Revolution, and now feel disappointed, as if someone lied to us. It is the Cuba of my generation, the Cuba of the generation of my parents, who helped to build the Revolution, and now don’t have anything.”

Even as Melaza continues to play to audiences worldwide, Lechuga is busy scripting two new projects. One is an ambitious vampire movie, set in Havana during the crisis of the “Special Period.” The other is a smaller, “very personal” film, about a gay middle-aged writer and the young farmer girl who falls in love with him. And having travelled quite a bit in support of Melaza, including to Port of Spain for the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival (where the jury awarded the film the prize for best feature), Lechuga is enthusiastic about the idea of working with other Caribbean countries.

“Travelling to T&T opened a lot of doors, and also opened my mind. We are so similar, and we are so near,” he says. “Cuba has a great tradition in film, but we don’t have the resources, the money that a country like Trinidad and Tobago has. We have to work together.

“Cuba needs to be on the same page with the rest of the Caribbean, and the other countries of the Caribbean can also learn a lot from Cuba. We are family.”